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Health and Consumer Protection

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Alden Biesen, 18 September 2001

Byrne and Fischler call for political leadership on gmos

Speaking at the Informal Agriculture Council in Alden Biesen/Belgium today, Franz Fischler, Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries and David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection called upon policy makers to show leadership when it comes to the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). "As the heated public debate in Europe shows, it is of utmost importance to respond to the concerns of our society. This is what the Commission did by proposing clear labelling, traceability and a sound science based authorisation process. It is not my understanding of political leadership to echo populist stances and play on fears in order to score cheap political points", said Fischler. David Byrne added: "A high level of protection, consumer choice and transparent, uniform and efficient authorisation procedures are key elements in fostering social acceptance and trust in the application of biotechnology to food and feed. Very often the debate on GMOs has generated more heat than light. We must ensure, as political leaders, that the unbiased facts on bio-technology are placed before our citizens to see and understand. Too many false claims has been made which do not reflect the science-based approach to food safety that I advocated. Therefore I call on all sides to have a rational debate and to take a balanced approach. In the minds of the European public, safety is the most important ingredient of their food. Compromising on food safety is not the way forward. The overarching principle of the existing and proposed legislation of the Commission on GMOs is that GM food and feed is not and must not present a risk for human health, animal health or the environment".

David Byrne presented to Agriculture Ministers for the first time the recently adopted proposals of the Commission on traceability and labelling of GM food and GM feed. He underlined: "The current EU labelling scheme provides that GM foods have to be labelled if traces of DNA or protein resulting from the genetic modification are detectable in the final product. I believe that we can do better than that. The choice that I want to give Europe's consumers is very simple - "I can choose whether or not to buy food produced from a GMO". For the very first time GM-feed will also need to be clearly labelled to give farmers a choice. And it will involve the European Food Authority in the authorisation process thus enabling Europeans to have a one door - one key approval process".

"The question of GMOs", Fischler went on, "is way too important, not only for the farmers and the industry or the scientific world, but also in job terms. We have to protect consumers from possible risks, we have to talk openly about the pros and cons of biotech. We should take a pro-active stance. We must explain to the people out there what they risk if we turn our back on this technology. We must make clear what benefits biotech can bring to them, from hunger-relief by making crops resistant against drought to its responsible application in the field of medicine. And here we, admittedly, must do better".

Fischler also underscored that one of the main challenges in the GMO context was to maintain the viability of both, conventional and organic farming. "Organic produce must remain GM-free. We have to ensure that contamination of organic production with GMOs does not take place".

Renewable agriculture raw materials

Addressing the second issue of the Informal Agriculture Council, renewable agriculture raw materials, Fischler underlined that by expanding the use of bio-fuels, agriculture could make an important contribution to reducing CO 2-emissions. "We have already a set of measures to promote the cultivation of bio-mass in place, such as allowing non-food crops on set-aside land or investment aids under the Rural Development Programmes", he said. He further said that the clear discrepancy between the prices of bio-energy and that of fossil energy was an important handicap. "But this price gap is only seemingly a result of a real competitive disadvantage of bio-energy. Fossil energy sources benefit from the fact that market prices do not reflect their external social costs, such as CO 2-emissions. It requires political action to bring the true price to bearing through taxes on fossil fuels, tax-breaks or compulsory market shares for bio-fuels", Fischler pointed out.

Fischler told the ministers that the Commission would decide in the coming weeks on an initiative to significantly expand the use of bio-fuel, by introducing compulsory market shares for bio-ethanol and bio-diesel to be used in the transport sector. "For our farmers this is a clear opportunity. The production of bio-energy can offer new sources of farm income. Producing bio energy could become a manifest expression of a sustainable, multifunctional agriculture. Such a demand-push for bio-energy will result in more attractive prices. This of course represents also an incentive for our competitors on the world markets to export processed bio-fuels or raw materials to the EU. In the light of our WTO-commitments, keeping them out is not an option, nor are crop-specific direct payments. Even the set-aside privilege for non-food crops are limited because we are bound by the Blair House limits for by-products. Therefore, achieving the competitiveness of our bio-mass production vis-à-vis raw materials of fossil origin as well as vis-à-vis competitors from outside of the EU is the only way forward", he said.

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